A Cow Ate Our Alphabet

A Cow Ate Our Alphabet: A Conversation Between Two Translators of a Dying Language of Greece

Dimitri Hatzipemou interviewed by Peter Constantine

“When a speech community dies, the world loses a bundle of ideas unique to that culture and a circle of concepts that could only be expressed in that language. The stories that once brought countless generations of a community together never again quicken hearts and minds.”

– from the mission statement of
The Language Conservancy Project

In Greece there are several non-Greek indigenous languages—among them Arvanitika, Gagauz, Pomakika, Ponash, Vlachika—all severely endangered. These are oral languages without writing systems, and though they are languages of Europe, surprisingly little research or documentation has been done on them. 

In this conversation, I talk with Dimitri Hatzipemou, a young Greek-Belgian translator, about his translation work involving Arvanitika, a language now only remembered by the elders of his village, Tychero, on Greece’s northeastern border with Turkey. As far as we are aware, Dimitri and I are the only two translators working with Arvanitika right now, though our dialects are different enough to sometimes be mutually incomprehensible, since there are some 600 miles of mountain ranges and rough terrain separating his village and the areas in Attica and the Peloponnese where I grew up. His is a community marked by tragedy, as the people of Tychero fell victim to ethnic cleansing during the enforced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey of 1923. The entire community was forced to flee their original villages—today called İbriktepe and Sultan Belde—which lie on the River Evros, just across the border in Turkey.

As languages are dying throughout the world at an alarming and growing rate, threatening our planet’s linguistic biodiversity, translators, linguists, ethnographers, and the last speakers of moribund languages have rushed to document and translate material before it is lost forever. What is particularly interesting and unusual in Dimitri’s translation project is that he does not only translate from Arvanitika into Greek, as might be expected, but also translates texts into Arvanitika, perhaps a surprising endeavor when even the elders of our communities are in most cases no longer fluent. But as he points out, creating texts for a language that lacks them is a vital task when trying to draw a community back to its language.

Peter Constantine: You are in a unique position of translating both into and out of Arvanitika, a language that is now spoken only by the elders in your community; and I believe most of these elders, as in many of our Arvanit villages throughout Greece, are themselves no longer fluent. Did you speak Arvanitika at home as a child?

Dimitri Hatzipemou: At home I spoke Greek and French—at school Flemish. Though I am very bound to my native village of Tychero, I grew up in Belgium. I first heard about Arvanitika when I was eight years old. We were sitting around a big table in my father’s Greek restaurant in Brussels with my godfather from back in the village, and he commented on the fact that I was growing up with Greek, French, and Flemish, noting that we had always been a multilingual family. He and my father counted up the languages they knew, and then, as an afterthought, my godfather added, “We forgot to mention Arvanitika,” and they both burst out laughing.

PC: They had forgotten to mention their own ancestral language?

DH: Well, in fact, they did mention it in the end, and that is something positive. The native languages of our area in northern Greece, such as Arvanitika, Gagauz, and the local Slavic languages, are almost never mentioned. One would be surprised how many Greek twenty- and thirty-somethings are not even aware that there are autochthonous languages spoken in Greece that are not Greek dialects or from the family of Greek languages. But it was clear that my father and godfather didn’t consider Arvanitika to be a language on the same footing as other languages.

PC: Some people in our village in Corinth say Arvanitika is not a language at all, but just a stringing together of ancient, un-Greek words. But then the same people often say that it is a rich and ancient language, Homeric, or even Pelasgian, and thus older than Greek. What one would call a First Nations language. It is also called the Language of Birds, perhaps because it is both melodious and ephemeral—ephemeral in the sense that it is an oral language. But generally it is marginalized and derided.

DH: People tend to look down on Arvanitika, referring to it as a bastardized mix of different languages: Medieval Albanian, Greek, Turkish, and a little Slavic. But on the other hand, villagers also claim that it was the world’s original language, that the first words Adam spoke were in Arvanitika, though they will often say this with a smile, and one wonders how serious they are. Anyway, when I asked my father what Arvanitika was, all he said was: “It’s a thing we used to speak back in the village.” When my father and godfather first mentioned Arvanitika that day at our Greek restaurant, they began to talk in it, haltingly, as neither of them remembered the language well after so many years. I began my first translation exercise then, a budding translator of eight, scribbling down words and phrases on a piece of crumpled paper, translating them into Greek and Flemish.

PC: Creating your own Rosetta Stone.

DH: (laughs) A very modest Rosetta Stone, but one could perhaps call it that, since Arvanitika is only a spoken language with very little—in fact, almost no—documentation. But that first act of translation was an extremely important moment for me, a sort of turning point. From then on, my ear became sensitive to the language—I would catch snippets when villagers back in Greece exchanged words and phrases in it. Arvanitika was always in the air, but it is fascinating how a whole new generation has somehow managed to tune it out.

PC: After these first words that you learned as a child and your first attempts at translating from Arvanitika as a learning tool, what was the trajectory of your Arvanitika studies? Did you continue trying to learn the language as a teenager?

DH: It was only when I started studying linguistics at the University of Ghent that I acquired the tools and knowledge of how to properly conduct research on languages. Then I slowly set out on a quest to find speakers, a quest to document this undocumented language, and to translate to and from Arvanitika.

PC: I have always felt it scandalous that there has been practically no documentation, that there are no learning tools of any kind. There were two German linguists who did important field work on Arvanitika in the 1960s and ’70s, but their work is unavailable to us. I’m thinking particularly of the case of Jürgen Sasse, who was working on a major four-volume grammar and documentation of Arvanitika when he died. And then there is the Greek linguist and ethnographer Titos Jochalas.

DH: It is indeed a scandal that there are no learning tools, no grammars, no dictionaries. Titos Jochalas did field work and linguistic research on almost every Arvanite community in Greece. He also wrote a monograph on the Arvanites of the Evros region, where my village is. There is a very interesting and extended glossary at the end of the book, and with this, Jochalas did the only serious research on our language. I tried to follow his example and his methods when I started working on Arvanitika.

PC: In your translation work?

DH: I would say right before I began translating. Since there are no written sources of Arvanitika, I had to create some. So I transcribed songs, oral accounts, stories and the like. I recorded people speaking or singing, then transcribed everything, so as to have language material that I could analyze and work with.

PC: What were your first steps in translation?

DH: Translating for me began in fits and starts, and in a variety of media. Most of the translation work at first had to do with learning the language and somehow perpetuating it, creating much-needed texts.

PC: The translator as language conservationist.

DH: That’s right. I began by assembling all possible songs, stories, sayings, and proverbs, and translated them into Greek. That actually helped me learn the language. My first translation into Arvanitika was just a brief slogan, but it was quite a crucial moment for me. It was a collaboration with some local artists, who wanted to paint Sigmund Freud’s “Lieben und Arbeiten” on a wall near the village square. “To love and to work,” Freud’s formula for a happy life.

PC: How very interesting. I would be dumbstruck if I found that written on any of our village walls in the Peloponnese. I don’t think anyone in my village has ever heard of Freud.

DH: In an 1879 Greek newspaper article, our community had been described as “an oasis of education and knowledge in a desert of ignorance.” Traditionally, we have always had a sound basic education system, and I would describe my people as witty and sharp and eager for knowledge. But we are an agricultural village and it is safe to say that most people don’t know anything about Freud . . . although one would hope that a younger generation has at least heard of him.

PC: What was the scope of this first translation project?

DH: The aim of these artists was to paint positive educational quotations, in Arvanitika, onto abandoned public walls: neglected, scaly, crumbling walls that were quite an eyesore. One could say the translation project also had an activist slant to it. Arvanitika has been rejected and persecuted in so many ways by Greece as a nation, but often also by its own speakers. If we painted our Arvanitika slogans on the walls, as graffiti, and the people or the local authorities wanted to erase them, they would have had to whitewash the ugly abandoned walls. If nothing else, our translation project would lead to a cleaner village. But in fact the reactions to this project were so positive that the mayor of our village actually asked us to do two more of them, one right on the central square, and another next to the small local open-air amphitheater. In other words, in two important public places.

PC: So Freud was your first Arvanitika translation project.

DH: Yes, but translating his three-word slogan turned out to be harder than I anticipated. I immediately ran into some basic linguistic hurdles. Or rather, I should use “we,” since my translations have always been a group effort, with me knocking on doors, asking elders for this or that word, this or that grammatical structure. The challenge was that infinitives do not exist in Arvanitika or in Modern Greek in the way they do in other European languages, so we translated the German phrase using a Greek grammatical pattern, τe ντούαςς δε τe πουνόνjeςς (të dùash dhe të punonjësh). Literally, “You should love and you should work.”

PC: The lexical differences between our dialects are interesting. Te πουνόνjeςς (të punonjësh), to us, would mean “you should till the land.”

DH: We don’t really make a distinction between working in general and working in the fields, but I think in this case we have just come across a false friend between our two dialects. Translating slogans to be painted on the walls became a minor but important first project, and it sparked much discussion, bringing a touch of visibility back to the language. As the COVID pandemic descended on Greece, we also translated the slogans μμπάjνι μεjντάν (mbàjni mejdàn), “Keep your distance,” and βέρνι μάσκeν (vérni màskën), “wear your mask,” for posters. Our people were confronted with our ancestral language, and these short and minimal translations made the language a subject of discussion. In the first Freudian translation effort, τe ντούαςς (dùash, “you should love”) became a hot topic, as it also means “you should want,” and the villagers were puzzled that our language didn’t seem to differentiate between wanting and loving. 

PC: So in Arvanitika, Freud might also be saying “You should want and you should till the fields.” In our Peloponnesian dialect we would have used an Arvanitic version of the Greek word for love, agape. Something like τe αγαπίσεςς (të agapìsesh) for “you should love.” Were you specifically seeking to avoid any words with Greek roots in your translations, or do you not use the variant of agape in your dialect?

DH: My translation policy is not to exclude any words we use in our community or to try to create some sort of purified, ideal language. It’s simply that we don’t use agape in our dialect of Arvanitika. I feel that in one’s translations, particularly translations into an endangered language, it is vital to remain loyal to the truth, to the language, to the way it is spoken, and not bring an agenda to the table, such as cleansing the language of any words with non-Arvanitic roots.

PC: That is a very good point. There are some endangered language communities that do strive for a cleansing of sorts, removing words that are not originally native to the language; that might be tantamount to removing all non-Anglo-Saxon words from English, for instance all the Latinate words.

DH: We also have to be sure that our translations represent our dialect as it was spoken as a whole: when analyzing a special word, or when deciding to use it in a translation, I often turn to the elders of our community to double- and triple-check if it is right. If you rely only on one speaker as an informant or cotranslator, you could fall into the trap of concentrating on an idiolect. And if our translation isn’t understandable to the majority of native speakers, what would be the point of it?

PC: Were there villagers who took issue with any of your word choices for the slogan translations?

DH: On the COVID posters some villagers disliked the word μεjντάν (mejdàn), saying it was too Turkish, adding we should use a real Arvanitic word.

PC: Is that the Turkish word mejdan, as in “town square”? Is it used to mean distance?

DH: The Arvanitika and Turkish words are etymologically linked, but we use μεjντάν (mejdàn) to describe an open place, spaciousness. Back in the old times, there was no real need for substantives such as “distance,” you would probably simply say “stay far from each other.” I also considered using the Albanian word distancë, but as it is etymologically of Latin origin it did not strike me as a viable solution. And since it is not comprehensible to the Arvanitika mother-tongue speakers of the village, we kept mejdàn. Mejdàn was intelligible to most people and also kept that wooden officialese that would be suitable for a poster with an official warning. 

PC: You mentioned that you were considering using the Albanian word distancë in your translation. Why would you have chosen an Albanian word? Is it because Albanian is the closest standardized language to Arvanitika, since they have a common ancestor?

DH: Yes. In the Library of the Hellenic Parliament in Athens, you can actually find old newspaper reports that refer to us as “albanophone.” My Arvanitika dialect is close enough to the Albanian dialects of southeastern Albania for there to be some mutual comprehension. Sometimes, when we don’t find a word, it makes sense to open an Albanian dictionary, and then double-check with the elders if the Albanian word evokes any memories and eventually corresponds to our dialect or not.

PC: The Arvanitic dialects of Attica and the Peloponnese have words for distance, such as αλαργεσίρe (alargesirë). Would you consider borrowing words from other Arvanitic dialects if the villagers of Tychero cannot remember a word?

DH: Borrowing words from other Arvanitic dialects can be a solution. These could be steps toward standardizing our language. But I think this should be done by us as a community, through a committee or an academy, and not by me myself and I. Personally, I think the substantive “distance” itself might not have existed in our vocabulary at all. There are still enough fluent speakers to cross-check that. In general, when I ask them for abstract words, I often realize that it is not a question of a word they knew but have now forgotten, but something substantially different in their way of thinking, their way of looking at the same things we do, their worldview. For us too, λαργκ (larg), the root of the word αλαργεσίρe (alargesirë) of your dialect, means far. But the environment in which Arvanitika evolved was markedly different from our environment today. Concepts are sometimes perceived in a different way.

PC: You mentioned to me in a previous conversation that your dialect does not have a word for tree, but that there are hundreds of words for different types of trees. I also noticed in our Peloponnesian dialect, that there are countless words for different types of goats, depending on their coloring, their age, the shape of their horns. Every inch of a loom has its name, every inch of a kiln.

DH: Working on and grazing their animals in the plain all day, it makes sense that our people would have had reasons to name their natural environment with more precision than we do today. My father’s grandmother spoke almost no Greek at all, and she was a very expressive person. Claiming that our language is not rich enough for people to express themselves fully is wrong, and it is denigrating for our ancestors. They knew things we don’t know today. Today we have words such as internet, alarm systems, battery. These concepts did not exist a century ago in our villages. Community and everyday life were just different, and so the language was adapted to their specific situation and needs in space and time.

PC: In your translations, did you come across issues translating modern words and concepts?

DH: Absolutely. Apparently, there is no word in Arvanitika for forgiveness.

PC: That is very surprising. Would you consider forgiveness a modern word?

DH: To us it is a modern word, or let us say a modern concept, as we don’t have a native word for it. We might use the Greek word in a Greek situation. Definitely the concept of asking forgiveness was not as common in the past, when our people were largely monolingual in Arvanitika.

PC: In our Arvanitika dialects in Attica and the Peloponnese, we have quite a few words for forgiveness. Since the communities are very religious, one constantly hears it in all its forms. For instance, we must not mention the name of a deceased person, without the stock phrase ντελίερε τε ιέτε (delíere te yéte), “may he/she be forgiven.”

DH: Very interesting! We have this too: ι νντύερι (i ndyeri) for a man and ε νντύερα (ndyera) for a woman, which literally means “the forgiven one.” Also, ντίε Ζοτ (ndíe Zot, “may God have mercy on his soul”). Nevertheless, nobody in Tychero or any of the surrounding Arvanitic villages seems to know a word with which one can ask someone directly for forgiveness. Do you have a way of saying “I’m sorry” to someone in Peloponnesian Arvanitika?

PC: Yes, we would say ντελίε μe (delíe më), literally “forgive me.”

DH: That’s very interesting. I asked all our elders, but with no result. I think people would just say it in Greek.

PC: We also use Greek forms, depending on the situation.

DH: I remember saying to my grandfather: “Imagine you ‘re walking through the bazaar and you bump really hard into someone carrying melons. Melons from Tychero are a delicacy—they are famous throughout Greece. The man’s melons fall to the ground. What would you say?” “Nothing,” my grandfather replied. “We just bumped into one another, and the melons fell and were crushed. There’s no point in saying sorry. We’ll either fight or we won’t.”

PC: You mean, it is fate, so there is no need to ask forgiveness.

DH: Ι don’t know, maybe it’s fate or just fear of a confrontation, and we just move on. For that matter, I also had an issue with the word for life, which our dialect doesn’t have. When the Iranian activist Mahsa Amini was killed in Iran after being arrested for not wearing a headscarf, the artists wanted to write “Life is a woman” with green and red colors on the wall. The Albanian word for life is jeta, but it is not a word we use in our dialect. So we gave up on the slogan and did not complete the project. It’s a pity that it didn’t work out, but in translating such words we need to come to a common consensus.

PC: It is interesting that you mention jeta. That is one of our older words for life, and still occurs in songs and stories, but we now use the Greek word zoe, which we consider an accepted part of our vocabulary.

DH: As Arvanitika is not standardized, every different Arvanitika community has developed its own vocabulary, according to its needs and history.

PC: And there are often great distances and unpassable mountains that have separated the communities for many centuries.

DH: Our people would of course understand the Greek word for life, and we have a lot of Greek words in our core vocabulary, but we don’t use this one.

PC: You have also translated longer texts into Arvantitika.

DH: My most complicated translation project turned out to be the translation of Biblical passages that our villagers wanted to chant at the Easter ceremony. In the Greek Orthodox Church, one of the Easter traditions is to read out the “Vespers of Love,” John 20:19–25, in different languages, to reflect the international and ecumenical dimension of “the Good News.” One of the books the Orthodox cantors use for the service has these verses in quite a few languages so that a parish can choose which languages to read it in.

PC: Though your village, Tychero, is Arvanitic, the “Vespers of Love” had never been read out in Arvanitika?

DH: In Ferres, a larger Arvanitic village in our province, there is a theologian, Nathanail Kapsidis, who found an Albanian version of the “Vespers of Love” in an ecclesiastical book and used it as an aid to translate the original Biblical Greek text into our Arvanitika. He was helped by his mother and his aunt, and his version was read out in local churches in his area.

PC: I have seen nineteenth-century translations of the gospels into Arvanitika, and even though they were done by people from our area, they were very hard to read, even by our fluent elders. The reason was clearly that words had been created to cover Biblical concepts for which we had no vocabulary.

DH: Exactly, it is a real challenge. Nathanail Kipsidis’s translations were also strange to our ears and hard to follow. I had discovered his translation and used it as a draft, or let’s say a starting point, for a new version that I made with the help of my father and elders of Tychero. I tried bringing his version closer to our dialect, as his translation had been too strongly influenced by the Albanian one he had used to make it understandable to us.

PC: So your project was like an intralingual translation, translating from one form of Arvanitika, albeit heavily influenced by Albanian, into another?

DH: One could call it an intralingual translation project, though none of us thought of it as such, perhaps since we know the Greek original so well, and it was in the forefront of our minds as we translated. But it was intralingual in that I started out by adjusting some words and phrases from Nathanail Kapsidis’s translation, which must be said was a very good version; it was just the unfamiliar Albanian element that was the main issue for us. We got stuck on Verse 23, which seemed impossible to translate: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” The barrier we faced again was that we don’t have a word for forgiveness.

PC: What word did Nathanail Kapsidis use?

DH: He used the Albanian forms fal and falur, from the Albanian verb fal, “to forgive,” which wouldn’t be understood in our village, or in his village for that matter. After working on a first draft, I ended up meeting with him in Ferres, and he told me that he had always wanted to edit and correct his translation, so that there would be an authentic version in our language that our people could understand.

PC: So Nathanail Kapsidis became part of your translation group for this project.

DH: Yes, he did. We found two fluent native speakers and the four of us sat around a table. I took a pen, and together with Nathanail Kapsidis, we would propose translations, and then see if the two native speakers would understand them and agree to our using them.

PC: How did you handle the issue of forgiveness in this case?

DH: We considered three options: First we thought of using the Greek word, συγχωρώ (sighoro), and adapting it to Arvanitic grammar, but the result sounded unnaturally Greek to everyone and it was quickly rejected. I proposed a second version, based on the word I mentioned earlier that we use for deceased persons, ι νντύερι (i ndyeri), “the forgiven one.” I tried to craft a new word, creating a verb out of the adjective. But the native speakers were quite horrified, as i ndyeri is only used for dead people, and so would, in a sense, be sacrilegious.

PC: And the third option?

DH: The English and Modern Greek versions of the verse are, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” but when we revisited the Biblical Greek version, it actually uses the word ἀφίημι (aphíēmi) which is to leave or let pass.

PC: How interesting. The traditional King James Bible also doesn’t use the word forgive. The verse is “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.”

DH: How surprising! Well, coming across the Biblical Greek word for leaving or remitting gave us the solution. We used that word, and it was fully intelligible to our fellow villagers. Relieved, the four of us shook hands and the text was printed and distributed to the Churches of all the Arvanitic villages of our region in Southern Evros.

PC: In my translation work with Arvanitika, I have always run into the problem of what alphabet to use, since our language does not have a writing system. Our villagers insist on using the Greek alphabet, which unfortunately does not reflect all the sounds of Arvanitika. What did you do?

DH: Our villagers will tell you that there is a very simple reason why we don’t have an alphabet. Once upon a time a fierce war was raging and there was an Arvanitic priest who was terrified that our community would lose its alphabet, and so he quickly wrote out the alphabet on a cabbage leaf to safeguard it for future generations. But to our great misfortune, a cow came by and ate the cabbage leaf. Legends aside, the fact remains that whenever Arvanites try to write something in Arvanitika, they will use the Greek alphabet, each in their own way, some using apostrophes for toneless neutral vowels, others leaving out toneless vowels altogether.

PC: Unfortunately, that has led to the problem that most people can’t read what the other has written. I’ve seen whole words written out without vowels, just consonants and apostrophes.

DH: Since there is no standardized way of writing Arvanitika, there were major problems and delays in my translations as I tried to come up with solutions that would be both acceptable and readable. I ended up having two versions of everything: one written out in a slightly modified Greek alphabet for public consumption, and a Latin version with extra accents for sound variation for my own work.

PC: Though the writing in a modified Latin alphabet makes more sense, and is used by linguists, the people of our villages would never accept it. They are quite set on the Greek alphabet as it is an important symbol and affirmation that Arvanitika is a language native to Greece.

DH: That is very true. If this alphabet is what the people, the native speakers, want, then that must be respected. And, as the saying goes: if the Greek alphabet was good enough for Homer, it is good enough for us.

Dimitri Hatzipemou is a Greek-Belgian translator living in Brussels. He is a terminal speaker of two severely endangered indigenous languages of Greece: Arvanitika, a descendant of a non-Greek Paleo-Balkan language, and Gagauz, an Oghuz Turkic language. He is currently the only translator working from Modern Greek into Arvanitika. He is originally from the village of Tychero in northern Greece and is currently translating slogans and literary and liturgical texts for the community in an effort to revitalize the language. He studied Eastern-European Languages and Cultures at Ghent University in Belgium.

Peter Constantine’s recent translations include works by Augustine, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and Tolstoy; he is a Guggenheim Fellow and was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, and the National Translation Award for The Undiscovered Chekhov. He is Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Connecticut and publisher of World Poetry Books. A terminal speaker of Corinthian Arvanitika, he is currently involved in translation and documentation efforts for this severely endangered language.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 7, 2023

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